Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Houdini Fake News Or Laurel/Yanny 1926?!

Houdini leaving Congress (Library of Congress Photo)
There was one exchange that took place during Houdini's Feb 26th testimony before Congress, that I left out of the previous article. I wanted to double check some things before I posted about it. I must admit, I was excited about using the popular term 'Fake News' in a headline, especially given that it was from 1926. But before I could make the accusation, I had to check one source.

The story appeared in a number of newspapers on Feb 27th, 1926. It was put out by the Associated Press (AP) and picked up all over the country. One of the things that is mentioned in the various articles is the fact that Capital guards had to be summoned to stand ready to prevent any physical combat between the spiritualists, fortune tellers and Houdini. This I believe, though it was not recorded in the Congressional record. You see, a booklet was published by the Washington Government Printing Office called 'Fortune Telling-Hearings Before The Subcommittee on Judiciary of the Committee on the District of Columbia House of Representatives-69th Congress First Session on H.R. 8989'. This is the complete transcript of events that took place during the hearings. And, it's basically an eye witness source for what took place that day.

Before I go to the source, let me give you the essence of the 'fake news story'. Houdini, according to the stories, says that persons claiming supernatural powers were nothing but fakers. This part is true, and is reflected in the transcripts. Though a couple papers put down the word 'fakir' instead of 'faker', which is something different altogether.

Next, the stories say that Houdini offered $10,000 to anyone who could tell him what was in a telegram he tossed upon the table. Representative Reid, Republican from Illinois, spoke up and said, "Why it says, 'I can't be there today'." Houdini replies, "That's a guess, and you are not clairvoyant." Reid responds, "Oh yes I am!" and the audience bursts out laughing. The articles further state, that it turned out the Illinois representatives quotation of the telegram was correct, but Houdini insisted it was all an accident.  Wow. how embarrassing for Houdini. This was reported by the AP and went out to newspapers all over the country.

There is one small problem. It doesn't appear to have happened that way. Here is the dialog straight from the transcript:

Mr. McLeod: It is possible to have a genuine clairvoyant, is it not?
Mr. Houdini: It is impossible, I claim. I will give $10,000 to any clairvoyant in the world that will do one test.
Mr. Reid: What is the test?
Mr. Houdini: Any test I want them to do.
Mr. Reid: Let us get the $10,000
Mr. Houdini:Unfortunately, I didn't bring it with me. But I can telegraph for the money, if you wish.
Mr. McLeod: There are witnesses here.
Mr. Houdini: They will say under oath and swear to it; I tell you I would not believe a clairvoyant or fraudulent medium under oath, so help me God.
Mr. McLeod: Wood you by proof?
Mr. Houdini: By proof, yes: certainly by proof.
Mr. McLeod: Here is a witness that can prove it.
Mr. Reid: How long have you been fighting them?
Mr. Houdini: About 35 years.
Mr. Reid: Have you been fairly successful?
Mr. Houdini: I have had more mediums arrested in two years than have been arrested in seventy, because I know their tricks; I know how to catch them.
Mr. Houston: You have never tried to catch them on a test, have you?
Mr. Houdini: On a test (turning to the audience) Tell me the name my mother called me when I was born? {no response from audience}  Tell me the pet name my father used to call me? {no response from audience} (At this point Mr. Houdini threw on the committee table the crumpled up piece of paper.)
Mr. Houston: We ought to know something about the subject matter.
Mr. Houdini: You asked for a test?
Mr. Houston: Sure.
Mr. Houdini: Here is a telegram (turning to the audience). Read that, you clairvoyant mediums and show me up. Tell the contents of the telegram. {no response}
Mr. Reid: I will tell you what it says: " Please send more money."
Mr. Houdini: Does anybody want to read that wire?
Mr. Reid: I have made a guess.
Mr. Houdini: She {indicating one of the audience members} is a clairvoyant.
Mr. Reid: I said, "Please send more money."
Mr. Houdini: You can make your own deduction. That is just what it is. You are not a clairvoyant?
Mr. Reid: Oh, yes I am (laughter from audience)
Mr. Houdini: All right, if you are clairvoyant, tell me what this wire is. Go ahead {producing another telegram}
Mr. Reid: It is asking if you didn't come?
Mr. Houdini: No, sir. Everybody guesses at it.

The sections in red are the most important. The newspapers record that Reid said, "I can't be there today." But what Reid actually said was, "Please send more money." So they got that wrong. Houdini doesn't admit that Reid correctly guessed the message in the telegram either. What he says to Reid is: "You can make your own deduction. That is just what it is." Then he adds, "You are not clairvoyant."
Congressman Reid was making light of most of the days events, and here is another example. But I don't see here where Houdini replies, "ok you guessed that correctly, let's try again." NO, he says nothing of the kind. He does say basically,"that was a guess". But he pointed out that Reid was not clairvoyant and really the question was to the crowd. When Reid would not stop, Houdini hit him with a test all his own, which he got wrong.

Now, I've read this numerous times. And perhaps: "You can make your own deductions. That is just what it is." could be interpreted to mean, 'You can make your own deductions. Your statement is correct'. But I tend to think, IF that is what is meant, then it would have followed with {laughter from audience}. Because the next line has that. And surely if someone guessed correctly after Houdini made such a grand statement, the audience would have gone crazy. Not to mention the fact, that Reid doesn't say anything about claiming the $10,000 prize. And given his antics during the day, I can't see how he would have missed such an easy joke. Later sections of the report do show when the proceedings had to be stopped because things were getting out of hand...meaning the audience was getting out of hand. Don't you think a room full of fortune tellers and mediums would have gone wild over someone apparently beating Houdini at his game? I am unclear now. At first when I read it I didn't think that was the case. Now, after having read it numerous times, I can see the other side of the argument.

Tell me, what do you think? Do you think Reid guessed it correctly? Or do you think he got it wrong and Houdini just moved on to another test? Maybe it's a case of Laurel/Yanny from 1926, you hear it one way or hear it another, lol?!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Houdini Testifies Before Congress Day 1

In 1926, Harry Houdini stepped way beyond his role of magician, escape artist, showman, and actor. He does something which was rare for an entertainer. He testified before Congress. This was the ultimate act of attacking the fake spiritualists. Oddly, the bill before Congress was an anti-fortune telling bill.

Fortune Telling? I thought Houdini was after fake spirit mediums?! The spiritualists were not happy to be lumped in with so-called 'gypsy fortune tellers', even though many of them ran in the same circles. Here is an interesting thing I found from an issue of Stanyon's Magic. In the early 20th Century, the spirit mediums began to refer to themselves by a new name, 'psychist'. This word means someone who believes in psychic phenomenon. Of course, in the later part of the 20th century, we would refer to these folks as psychics and even psychic mediums. They could apparently read your mind and tell you the future.

The bill before Congress was House Resolution8989 and it was sponsored by Sol Bloom of NY. It
Congressman Sol Bloom
would prohibit all forms of fortune telling within the D.C. limits. Several other states and localities had similar laws that they were using successfully, so here was an attempt by Congress to implement the same thing. Sol Bloom has an interesting history. He had a background in entertainment. Not only that, he was the man responsible for creating the Midway at the Chicago's World Fair! And among the many entertainers at this event... Yes, Houdini. An article that appeared in the Oct 16th, 1942 edition of The Washington Post mentions that Sol Bloom had an interest in magic. In fact, the title of the article is Master Magician of Capital Hill.

So, if you're going to propose a bill about stopping spiritualists in D.C., and you know you can't do that because the spiritualists claim it's a religion, and they have protection under the Constitution. Then you take a slightly less direct route and go after Fortune Telling and write the bill in such a way that you can snag the fake spirit mediums along the way. And if you're going to do that, who better to call for advice and knowledge, than the number one Spirit Debunker in the country, Harry Houdini! And, it seems clear that the two must have known each other. On the rare chance they didn't meet at the Chicago World's Fair, then they surely met while Bloom was representing Gentleman Jim Corbett. Houdini was in the line-up with Corbett during the 1917 Benefit Shows to raise money for the war effort.

The first day of the meetings was Feb 26th, 1926. The proceedings started at 10:30am . According to the Congressional Record, when the proceedings begun, the bill was read before the committee.

Here is how the bill reads:
"Any person pretending to tell fortunes for reward or compensation where lost or stolen goods may be found; any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune telling, or by any trick or other means, by the use of cards or other implements or instruments, fraudulently obtains from another person money or property or reward, property of any description; any person pretending to remove spells, or to sell charms for protection, or to unite the separated, shall be considered a disorderly person. Any person violating the provisions of this law shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $250 or by imprisonment not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment."

Then Congressman Bloom addresses the committee. He is asked numerous questions, and there seems to be much debate on the proper placement of commas and such. Then they begin to grill him on content. There is a humorous exchange between Congressman Reid and Congressman Bloom.
Reid: What is telling a fortune?
Bloom: Well, telling a fortune is to make people believe what the future is, to give you a picture that you are going to marry a blond.
Reid: How do you know you won't?
Bloom: I want to tell you something, I am serious about this thing, and I don't want any kidding or joking from you.
Reid: That is the sad part of it.

After much bantering and bickering, Houdini, who may have arrived late, is welcomed before the committee. He answers a few questions in regards to his qualifications. Then he makes his opening statement. He begins with, "This is positively no attack upon religion. Please understand that, emphatically. I am not attacking a religion. I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion, as long as it does not conflict with the laws of the country or laws of humanity. 
  But this thing they call "spiritualism" wherein a medium intercommunicated with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish. There are only two kinds of mediums, those who are mental degenerates and who out to be under observation, and those who are deliberate cheats and frauds. I would not believe a medium under oath; perjury means nothing to them."

And so it began. Houdini was not holding anything back. After his opening statement, the committee asks him questions. Congressman Rathbone asks Houdini if he has read the bill. Houdini replies he has read it eight or nine times. Then it is pointed out to Houdini that the bill never mentions spiritualism. They even direct a question to Houdini, "Is there anything in this bill that deals with spiritualism?". Houdini says, "Yes."

Clearly the committee is confused, and asks Houdini, "will you be good enough to point it out to me where the bill deals with spiritualism?"  Houdini follows with saying that under the guise of being a medium, they will tell fortunes. He makes the claim that 'mediums are clairvoyants'. And in D.C. the govt. gives licenses to clairvoyants for $25. He further goes on to say that there should be no distinction between fortune tellers and mediums as, in his mind, they are one in the same.

Then Houdini continues with describing some of the ways mediums operate, including wrapping themselves under the cloak of religion. They quote from the Bible, claiming it says various things about spiritualism. Houdini points out that he can refute any interpretation they make in regards to Biblical matters. Then Mr. Rathbone asks Houdini, if he is actually attacking spiritualism, because let's face it, it sure sounds like it.

Reading the actual transcripts of the events of Feb 26th, 1926 is fascinating. On one hand Houdini is claiming the bill says a great deal of things, that others claim it does not. For example, not once does it mention mediums or spiritualism. Yet to Houdini's mind, the very fact the bill says, "any person who, by game or device, sleight of hand, pretending, fortune telling, or by any trick or other means....shall be considered a disorderly person" and thus breaking the law and therefor covers mediums. He even declares as much. But when questioned about the difference between fraudulent vs. genuine spiritualist ministers, Congressman Bloom, the bills sponsor,  says the bill is only to weed out those who are bogus.

More than once it is suggested that the bill be redrafted to include some of the language that Houdini and Bloom are claiming is there, but isn't. Others on the committee are frustrated that this bill makes them all look ridiculous. Congressman Bloom points out that a similar bill was held constitutional by the State of New York. And Congressman Gilbert follows with, "Constitutional, but ridiculous."

As the session is nearing the end, Congressman Hammer speaks up and says to Houdini, "I didn't understand what your occupation is."  And I don't think he was alone in that. Some members had no clue who Houdini, one of the biggest names in show business was. Houdini follows with a classic line, "I am a syndicate writer; I am an author, and I am a mystifier, which means I am an illusionist.......I call it mystification, But I do tricks that nobody can explain." There is some conjecture about Houdini claiming real powers, which he flatly denies. He points out that others say he has these powers, but he has never made such claims.

Then Congressman Hammer makes a really astute observation, "These people claim they have divine power. Don't you think it is very difficult to do anything along the line of stopping them? I am talking to you. You have a religion; and I ask you whether, under our form of government, if we ought not to go very slow before we enact legislation along this line? I want some sort of bill; this bill or the New York law or something. I am in favor of amending and making stronger the law to prevent these things you have exposed, in doing which you have performed a great service, although you are rather severe in your strictures of those who disagree with you." This is all addressed at Houdini. Several of the members did think the idea of the bill worthwhile, but they knew that they were dangerously close to prohibiting religious liberties, and any such bill would be tossed quickly on those grounds.

The final person who was brought up to testify was a Mrs. Jane B. Coates, she was head of the American Order of the White Cross Society, and an ordained Spiritualist Minister. She had a clever angle. She pointed out that the bill made no reference to mediums who give spiritual advice, and that the bill should include language protecting the rights of spiritualists to give interviews to members of their congregations or to those who come to them in trouble and sorrow and needing advice. Then she further said their method of pay should be protected as well. Basically, she was wanting them to flip this bill on it's head and do the exact opposite that Houdini and Bloom wanted.

Rev. Jane Coates

Mrs. Coates got into a discussion with Congressman Bloom on fake mediums vs. real and she said she could trust no one that wasn't a mystic to be able to identify those who are fake. Congressman McLeod asks, "Is Mr. Houdini a mystic?". Mrs. Coates replies, "I think Mr. Houdini is one of the greatest mystics the world possesses today." And Congressman Bloom says, "But he says he is not." And Mrs. Coates follows with, "Mr. Houdini denies everyone's statement that is not on his side of the case."

Despite Houdini trying to butt-in and get his two cents back in the game, the session was closed due to the time. Houdini would have a couple months to reevaluate and prepare for his next meeting, which would take place on May 18th, 1926.

There was additional banter between Houdini and the Congressmen and Mrs. Coates. The newspapers of the day covered a few things that must have been struck from the Congressional Record. I have not included them here, but may post on one particular incident from the Feb 26th proceedings, on another date.

If you thought this session was wild, wait till you hear what happened in May!!!! Part 2 to follow shortly....

Monday, April 30, 2018

May Magic History Contest on The Magic Detective


We have a winner for the May 2018 Magic History Contest. The winner is Majik Mike from Point Pleasant NJ. The question was, "He did a great Bullet Catch for publicity, but then chose suicide in real life. Who was this person?" and the answer was
Ted Anneman. Below is a video of Ted doing the Bullet Catch.

Thank you to everyone who participated. I'll post the next Magic History Contest Question on June 1st.

I'm back with another Magic History Contest!  One question & the winner gets an actual piece of magic history. Here is the question:

He did a great Bullet Catch for publicity, but then chose suicide in real life. Who was this person?

Contest Rules:

  • Only 1 entry per person
  • To enter: Send me an email, with the subject heading 'May Magic History Contest' to info@carnegiemagic.com    
  • Please include your full name in the email. 
  • You must live in the continental United States
  • I'm going to pick a random name from among all the correct entries to get the winner!
  • No purchase necessary. 
  • Contest Ends Friday May 11th, 2018